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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006, 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK
Lost connection to animate Earth
Stephan Harding
Stephan Harding

Modern humans have lost a vital connection to "animate Earth", says ecologist Stephan Harding in this week's Green Room. Re-connecting with the natural world and the true place of humans in the cosmos is the best route, he argues, to sustainable societies and economies.

Bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees).  Image: AP
We are wiping out so many species that biologists speak of a mass extinction more fatal than any other in our Earth's history

There is now little doubt that our culture is unleashing a vast and accelerating crisis upon the world.

We have set in train changes to our climate that seem certain to become very dangerous indeed during the next 50 years or so.

We are wiping out so many species that biologists speak of a mass extinction faster and possibly more fatal than any other in our Earth's long history.

Our social fabric is also unravelling, and as it does so crime and massive psychological problems increase apace.

As the Earth gears up to pay us back for waging our unwitting war against her, it is critically important that we discover what has made our culture so uniquely destructive.

Some believe that our inherently "sinful" human nature is to blame, that any culture with our technological might and prowess would have done the same thing; but I subscribe to a different understanding.

I believe that we are suffering from a world view so dangerously pathological that it is leading our civilisation to the brink of suicide.

'Dead machine'

The fatal flaw is this: that for us, the entire cosmos, including the Earth and all her living beings, her rocks and air and atmosphere is no more than a dead machine that we are free to exploit without limit in the furtherance of our own interests.

Singapore stock trader.  Image: AP
Gaian philosophy questions our current economic models
This notion of a mechanistic universe comes in part from the great thinkers of scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries, from men such as Descartes, Bacon and Galileo.

There is no doubt that their creation, modern science, is a brilliant and fabulously powerful intellectual achievement that has given us many significant benefits; but it has also deluded us into believing that only pure analytical reasoning can give us reliable knowledge about the world.

No wonder then that we have ended up in a "dead" cosmos, for science has taught us to be deeply suspicious of our sensual, intuitive and ethical sensibilities.

I believe that we must quickly develop an expanded science that recognises the validity of all four ways of knowing in equal measure if we are to avert the looming disaster.

When we do this, we enter the ambit of a different, more wholesome perspective in which our spontaneous, sensual experiences of the world, our deepest intuitions, our sense of what is right, and our reasoning work together to inform us, in the words of "geologian" Father Thomas Berry, that the world is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.

This is no new idea. Plato spoke of the anima mundi, the soul of the world, and many of the great philosophers, including Spinoza, Leibniz, and more recently AN Whitehead, considered matter itself to be sentient in its deepest roots.

Could it be that anima mundi, banished from our consciousness for 400 years, now cries out to be heard in this time of deep crisis?

Gaze at the sea, or lay on the ground feeling the great spherical body of our turning world at your back as she dangles you over the infinite expanse of the cosmos.
Within science, she manifests in quantum theory, systems thinking, complexity theory, and, more concretely, in James Lovelock's Gaia theory.

Here we learn that far from being a dead machine, the Earth is more like a living organism in which the tightly coupled interactions between the sum of all life and the rocks, atmosphere and oceans give rise to the stunning emergent ability of the Earth as a whole to maintain habitable conditions on her ancient crumpled surface despite an ever brightening Sun and the vagaries of tectonic events.

When approached simultaneously through our four ways of knowing, Gaia theory teaches us that we live symbiotically within a vast evolving sentient creature of planetary proportions - that we are just plain members of the Gaia community, not its masters or stewards.

Animate image

What would society look like if we lived according to this more animistic understanding?

We would recognise that other species, and indeed the Earth herself, have intrinsic value irrespective of their value to us.

We would deeply question our mainstream economic model, for the great wild sentient personality of our planet calls out to us to reject the endless and ever-increasing plundering of her material substrate.

Galileo Galilei.  Image: AP
Is Galileo's scientific tradition divorcing people from nature?
Instead we would develop a "steady state" economy in which the things that grow are love, spirituality, creativity, depth of community, simple living, and the healing of the Earth, but in which our use of her "resources" is kept at levels that she can cope with.

We will never know enough about the complex dynamics of our planet to justify a solid pessimism about the future. Fear is a good motivator, but love is best of all.

So the most important task for us all now is to re-discover our sense of belonging to our animate Earth. Only then will we feel our sense of self expanding outwards to embrace the vast more-than human-world that enfolds us.

Just try it. Spend time outdoors - gazing at the sea, or laying on the ground and feeling the great spherical body of our turning world at your back as she dangles you over the infinite expanse of the cosmos.

I guarantee that you'll find an unexpected wealth of happiness and connection in that simple act. Only then will you encounter the most durable motivation for engaging in genuinely sustainable actions.

Dr Stephan Harding is resident ecologist and coordinator of the MSc in holistic science at Schumacher College in Devon, UK. His book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia is published by Green Books

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

In the week beginning 3 July the BBC News website will be featuring an expert discussion on James Lovelock's recent book The Revenge of Gaia

Do you agree with Dr Stephan Harding? Do we need to re-connect with the natural world? Have we been exploiting resources without thinking of the consequences? Or does our current world view have some merits?

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